Opinion: Don’t count on Trudeau’s lazy math

There’s a short but jarring paragraph in Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion’s report last week on what went wrong in the SNC-Lavalin controversy.

When the commissioner asked Finance Minister Bill Morneau what kind of analyses his department had done on the economic damage that could flow from SNC-Lavalin having to go to trial, Morneau replied that there were none.

Not necessary, he said. As a former CEO, he just knew.

“For a company that relies on government contracts, a criminal conviction would almost certainly lead to a loss of employment and jeopardize the funding of pension plans,” the report states in a paraphrase of Morneau’s testimony.

It’s a key assumption that has had cascading effects. The argument that 9,000 jobs were at stake, and that they must be protected at all cost, lies at the centre of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s defence – and his political recovery plan.

“One of the things that a prime minister’s responsibility is, and always is, is to stand up for jobs and to protect Canadians right across the country,” Trudeau said again Monday.

Trudeau, like Morneau, is using “jobs” as a shorthand for economic growth and prosperity. They use that math repeatedly in their explanations in the SNC saga, just as they use it in their speeches, their slogans and their electioneering. One million jobs, brought to you courtesy of the Liberals. It’s a voter-friendly stand-in for comfort and stability.

But that easy equation is based on an outdated understanding of how labour markets and modern economics are working in Canada. To assume that jobs should be the federal government’s top economic responsibility is to assume prosperity for all flows from the fact of holding down a job. That’s not always automatically the case, however, and the SNC-Lavalin controversy exposes some of the problems with leaning on lazy calculus.

Canada is pretty much at full employment right now. The unemployment rate is near historic lows, at 5.7 per cent in July. Employers and entrepreneurs, when asked about their most pressing issues, complain about a shortage of qualified and available labour. Workers, on the other hand, mostly have jobs, but they worry about their wages not being enough for them to cover off their expenses, pay for their homes and save for the future. And they worry about their kids having decent work.

That’s not to say the federal government should ignore the economic impact of SNC-Lavalin, or to downplay the value of the company’s array of job opportunities across the country. Rather, it’s to point out that the labour market is in a state of high flux not well-served by a simplistic debate.

And yet, the Liberals know, and the polls suggest, that they are striking a public-opinion chord when they turn to “jobs” to justify so much of what they have done and plan to do. They are playing off a deep-seated fear of unemployment that we seem to carry with us regardless of the circumstances, and that leads us to look to the government for reassurance – inadvertently giving politicians a free pass when they invoke potential job loss.

Step 1 of the Liberal recovery plan from the stinging ethics report came immediately after its release last week. The prime minister accepted its findings, admitted he should have done things differently, but certainly didn’t apologize.

Instead, he depicted himself as a tireless defender of Canadian jobs who had maybe gone a bit over the top in his enthusiasm.

Step 2 – taking the job-protector mantle and running with it – started this week. Trudeau set off for a minitour of Quebec, starting with an appearance Monday morning at a major Unifor convention. The union is Canada’s largest in the private sector, representing more than 300,000 workers. Trudeau couldn’t have asked for a warmer reception. Union president Jerry Dias introduced him with a lavish list of everything the Liberal government has done to help organized labour since 2015, with job creation and job protection being the central theme. The crowd gave the prime minister a standing ovation and hugs all around. No mention of the ethics commissioner’s findings or the controversy that dogged the Liberals throughout much of last spring.

Trudeau’s subtext in SNC-Lavalin’s home province? The fight for jobs makes it all worthwhile. As he repeatedly told the ethics commissioner, his goal, above all, was to protect those 9,000 jobs by doing whatever it takes to keep the company’s head office in Montreal.

The risk, however, is that such unquestioning math puts politicians, and the material decisions they make, at the mercy of any corporation that has a substantial workforce in Canada. And voters are left with a sparse conversation about the future of work, wage stagnation and inequality.

Heather Scoffield is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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